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U.S. plans to accept 3 N. Korean refugees

October 25, 2006|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

Three North Korean teenagers, two of them orphans, have taken refuge in a U.S. Consulate in northeast China and are being processed for resettlement in the United States.

A State Department official familiar with the case of the three unrelated teens confirmed that the U.S. intended to resettle them in America.

Two boys in their early teens without family and a man about 18 or 19 years old were taken without incident into the consulate in Shenyang with a member of Liberty in North Korea, according to a spokesman for the grass-roots group who asked not to be identified for security reasons. The group, also known as LiNK, operates orphanages in China that provide for North Koreans living clandestinely there.

The question now is whether China will risk upsetting a longtime ally by allowing the teens to go to the U.S.

China returns virtually all North Korean defectors to their homeland, where they typically are sent to coal mining, farm and lumber camps with brutal conditions.

Giving sanctuary to the three teens promises to ratchet up U.S. and other international pressure on China to allow North Korean defectors to leave for other nations. The U.S. accepted its first six defectors in May and has pledged to accept thousands more North Koreans if they want to resettle.

In one case last summer at the same consulate, China eventually granted three defectors exit visas for the U.S. Those three had taken refuge in the South Korean Consulate next door, and when they heard the U.S. had accepted its first defectors, scaled the wall onto the American side.

China considers the North Koreans to be economic refugees, seeking a better life rather than fleeing repression, and wants to avoid triggering a mass influx. It recently started building a several-hundred-mile-long fence along its porous border with North Korea. And it reportedly has dispatched hundreds more soldiers to patrol the border cities and areas surrounding foreign embassies and consulates where defectors have sought sanctuary.

Several defectors have tried to rush through phalanxes of police and other security to gain access to foreign embassies in China, usually unsuccessfully. In one case caught on video, members of a North Korean family attempting to enter the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang were brutally dragged away by Chinese guards. The family was ultimately allowed to immigrate to South Korea.

President Bush criticized Chinese President Hu Jintao in a meeting at the White House this year for sending back to North Korea a woman who took refuge in a South Korean school in Beijing and asked for asylum, according to Bush aides.

Most of the more than 8,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, as well as the first group of six accepted by the U.S. in May, sneaked out of China via an "underground railroad" of safe houses and connections run by missionaries and humanitarian groups.

valerie.reitman@latimes.com

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